Additional Notes for 29th June

Cain-Abel

Though he was murdered at the hand of an envious brother, and even though there is not a recorded word from his lips in the Old Testament narrative, nonetheless, over more than six millennia Abel has “spoken,” and continues yet today.

The following words are recorded in the book of Hebrews.

“By faith Abel offered unto God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain, through which he had witness borne to him that he was righteous, God bearing witness in respect of his gifts: and through it he being dead yet speaks” (Heb. 11:4).

The verb rendered “speaks” [“speaketh” — older versions] is a present tense, active voice form. It suggests that, in some sense, Abel’s influence and the lessons associated with him are reverberating across the centuries of biblical history — even to our own day.

In order to get a more complete picture, it will be helpful to combine the Old Testament information regarding Eve’s second child, with the quotation introduced above.

“And the man knew [i.e., was intimate with] Eve his wife; and she conceived, and gave birth to Cain, and said, I have gotten a man with the help of Jehovah. And again she gave birth to his brother Abel. And Abel was a keeper of sheep, but Cain was a tiller of the ground. And in process of time it came to pass that Cain brought of the fruit of the ground an offering unto Jehovah. And Abel, he also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof. And Jehovah had respect unto Abel and to his offering: but unto Cain and to his offering he did not have respect. And Cain was very angry, and his countenance [expression on his face] fell. And Jehovah said unto Cain, Why are you angry? And why is your countenance fallen? If you do well, shall it not be lifted up? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door: and it will desire you, but you must rule over it. And Cain told Abel his brother. And it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and killed him” (Gen. 4:1-8).

Lessons from the Life of Abel

With these complementary texts in front of us, what lessons does the careful Bible student learn from the brief biographical data regarding Abel?

What is faith?

The case of Abel defines the nature of valid “faith.”

“By faith Abel offered unto God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain” (Heb. 11:4).

The verb “offered” reflects an act of obedience (cf. Heb. 11:8). The lad did not simply “believe” that a sacrifice would be acceptable. He accessed the divine blessing by means of obedience to a prescribed method.

It is commonly believed in the religious community that "faith is merely a willingness to accept facts regarding the Lord, combined with a disposition to trust him. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Faith is not validated as faith until it responds in doing what God requires. That is why James can challenge:

“Show me your faith apart from works [obedience], and I, by my works [obedience] will show you faith” (Jas. 2:18).

The action verbs, connected to the expression “by faith,” in Hebrews chapter 11 are vivid testimony to the nature of genuine faith.

Throughout the eleventh chapter of Hebrews as noble Old Testament characters come into view, it becomes clear that the “by faith” phrase is the equivalent of saying that the believer yielded to divine instruction.

W. E. Vine observed that Abel’s “by faith” sacrifice “was based on a revelation which God had made” (Vine, 129). Compare the principle set forth in Romans 10:17.

God Is Watching

The case of Abel reveals that God is observing the lives of those he has created. This is true of our entire sphere of activity in general, and of our worship in particular. We are not free to live as we please, accountable to no one but ourselves.

“The eyes of Jehovah are in every place, keeping watch upon the evil and the good” (Prov. 15:3; cf. Heb. 4:13).

True Worship

A consideration of the biblical narratives clearly demonstrates that worship involves more than sincerity alone. It entails substance as well.

True worship embraces: the proper object, a genuine disposition of mind, and adherence to the proper format (cf. Jn. 4:24).

There is no word of censure in the sacred text that would indicate an initially insincere attitude in Cain. When he brought the “fruit of the ground,” there is no textual reason that suggests he was less than honest in his attempt to worship God as he saw fit.

Rather, his error obviously was that he believed in the principle of “substitution,” i.e., it mattered not as to what he brought, so long as he brought something. He felt that he could engineer a plan as well as anyone. He was the prototype of Jeroboam the son of Nebat who crafted his own religious system, and in so doing, “made Israel to sin” (1 Kgs. 12:25ff; 14:16).

Thus, whereas Abel offered his gifts “by faith,” Cain brought his by “sight” (emotion, personal judgment, etc.). There is a vast difference between the two approaches.

The claim of some theologians, that Cain’s problem was rooted in the fact that he did not have a pure heart but that his offering was as valid as Abel’s is an assumption without sufficient evidence (see: Sailhamer, 61).

Cain’s subsequent anger does not prove that his offering was disingenuous initially. Moreover, the writer of Hebrews specifically says that it was Abel’s “sacrifice” that was “more excellent” than his brother’s — not his “disposition.” Add to this the fact that John declares Cain’s “works” were evil (1 Jn. 3:12).

Obedience Condemns Disobedience

Another significant lesson illustrated in the record regarding Abel is that genuine obedience, by way of contrast, condemns disobedience. Frequently, obedience draws a reactionary animosity, if not outright persecution.

The writer of Hebrews, in connection with Noah’s “by faith” preparation of the ark, asserted that by his obedience Noah “condemned the world” (Heb. 11:7b). The patriarch’s obedience, by its stark contrast, condemned the disobedience of his contemporaries.

Similarly, Cain, by some means, learned that the Lord had accepted his brother’s offerings, but rejected his. He thus became angry (Gen. 4:5-6). He was then warned that his anger was on the verge of escalating into even a deeper level of sin.

When his anger “conceived,” it “brought forth” murder (cf. Jas. 1:15). An inspired apostle comments on this matter in the following fashion:

“For this is the message which you heard from the beginning, that we should love one another: not as Cain was of the evil one, and killed his brother. And why did he kill him? Because his works were evil, and his brother’s righteous” (1 Jn. 3:11-12).

Influence Lives On: For Good or Bad

We learn from the case of Abel that one’s influence lives beyond the parentheses of his brief sojourn upon the earth. Think of the evil that has followed in the wake of Darwin, Nietzsche, Lenin, and Stalin. We are reminded of Adam’s influence each time we deposit the body of a loved one beneath the soil of our planet (cf. Rom. 5:12).

By way of contrast, reflect upon the influence of Jesus of Nazareth, and his disciples — men like Paul.

Albert Barnes has argued, with some force, that the influence of good people survives much longer than that of those who are evil (Barnes, 257). There was a precious moment during the ministry of Jesus that wonderfully illustrates this principle.

Not long before his crucifixion, Christ was in Bethany, the city where Lazarus, Mary, and Martha lived. During a special occasion, Mary came and anointed both the Lord’s head and feet with a precious ointment.

Judas (and likely under his influence the disciples as well) complained about the matter, charging the devoted lady with “waste.” But Christ commended the act, suggesting that it symbolized his approaching burial (cf. Mt. 26:6-13; Mk. 14:3-9; Jn. 11:55-12:11).

Then the Savior said regarding Mary:

“Verily I say unto you, wherever this gospel shall be preached in the whole world, that also which this woman has done shall be spoken of for a memorial of her” (Mt. 26:13).

A seemingly rather insignificant act has been forever enshrined in the “Memorable Deeds Hall of Fame.”

What will be said regarding our legacy — by our actions, teaching, and the influence through our children, grandchildren, etc. — in ages yet to come?

There is Something After Death

Finally, the fact that Abel’s obedience is applauded even centuries after his voice was but an echo from bloodstained soil (Gen. 4:10) constitutes subtle evidence that, upon death, he did not fade into the oblivion of an eternal nothingness, as materialists would have one believe.

Every detailed nuance of the biblical data argues for ultimate accountability and the administration of divine justice.

Abel is still speaking. Are we listening?

We were discussing Cain’s sacrifice in Genesis 4 in class recently, and some suggested that Cain’s “vegetable” offering was what God wanted, but Cain just did not give his “best.” My answer was that he and Abel should have offered the same thing (i.e., an animal sacrifice); however, I cannot prove that to be so.

Though there is no explicit explanation given in the Genesis narrative as to why God rejected Cain’s offering, it seems to me that the cumulative evidence in this case argues that Cain’s transgression consisted of more than just offering an inferior gift.

Here are my reasons.

Abel’s Gift Was More Excellent

While the adjective pleion (rendered “more excellent”) basically means greater either in quantity or quality, it can also denote that which is superior by reason of inward worth.

For example, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said that life is more than food. Life’s intrinsic greater value is in view.

There may be, therefore, a suggestion here that involves the nature of the gift offered (see below).

As in any case, however, the context of Hebrews 11:4 will have to determine the meaning of the word in that setting.

Abel’s Gift Was By Faith

When the expression “by faith” is employed in Hebrews 11:4ff with reference to the great characters of the Old Testament, it connotes the concept of obedience time and time again.

Verse eight explicitly says what the other passages imply, “By faith Abraham . . . obeyed.”

This principle becomes even more vivid when one compares the various examples of Hebrews 11 with their Old Testament background.

For instance, “By faith Noah . . . prepared an ark” (Heb. 11:7). As Moses shows in the Genesis narrative, this means he was strictly obedient to the divine instructions (Gen. 6:22).

To offer sacrifices by faith was to offer in harmony with sacred revelation (cf. Rom. 10:17), rather than the exercise of human “will-worship” (Col. 2:23).

The fact that these two brothers apparently brought their offerings at the same time may suggest that a heavenly instruction had been given. In view of the surrounding context, therefore, it appears that Cain’s sin was one of outright disobedience, not merely a weakness in giving that which was inferior.

Abel’s Gift Was Pleasing to God

The narrative in Genesis 4 leaves the impression that the type of offering made was the determining factor that brought God’s favour upon Abel, but not upon Cain.

Consider this. If the offering made was on account of sin (and the text does not explicitly say), then it would be reasonable to assume that a blood offering had been required (cf. Heb. 9:22). This could account for the Lord’s displeasure.

The comments of Professor Ralph Earle, in my judgment, are helpful here. He notes one idea regarding this matter:

Cain brought a bloodless offering, and thus offended Deity by posing as righteous and not in need of any sacrifice for sin. This theory has strong theological appeal. It assumes previous divine instruction as to what type of offering must be brought for making atonement for sin. There is indication that such a revelation had been given by the use of the verb form in Gen. 4:3 that can mean customary action (2003, 284).

Perhaps this is what the Hebrews writer alludes to in that God bore witness with respect to his gifts that Abel was “righteous.”

And so, while it may be the case that Abel’s offering was of better quality than his brother’s, it seems likely that there was a greater intensity of disobedience on Cain’s part than mere selfishness in offering a less valuable gift.

When Jude places Cain in a catalogue of vile rebels, he seems to confirm our view of the character of Adam’s first child (Jude 11).

“Did God reject Cain’s sacrifice simply because he did not ‘give his best’ or was it because it was not a blood sacrifice like Abel’s? Did God require an animal sacrifice (blood sacrifice) on this occasion?”

The record of Cain’s rejected sacrifice reads:

“And in process of time it came to pass, that Cain brought of the fruit of the ground an offering unto Jehovah. And Abel, he also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof. And Jehovah had respect unto Abel and to his offering: but unto Cain and to his offering he had not respect. And Cain was very wroth, and his countenance fell” (Gen. 4:3-5).

Here are the facts as recorded by Moses. Both Cain and Abel came to worship before the Lord, both brought a sacrifice. But there was a difference. Cain brought a sacrifice of the fruit of the ground. His offering was a bloodless sacrifice. However, Abel brought forth a bloody sacrifice, and the fat thereof.

The result of their worship before the Lord was that Jehovah had respect unto Abel and his offering, but he did not have respect towards Cain nor towards his offering.

And why was that?

Moses’s record makes it easy to understand what the problem was. The written account specifically denotes the differences between their offerings.

One was of produce, the other was a blood-bearing sacrifice.

New Testament commentary on Cain’s rejected sacrifice

The Hebrew writer makes it even more clear:

“By faith Abel offered unto God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain, through which he had witness borne to him that he was righteous, God bearing witness in respect of his gifts: and through it he being dead yet speaketh” (11:4).

How did Abel present his sacrifice unto the Lord? It was by faith. Moses did not write that Cain offered his sacrifice by faith, and no New Testament writer comments on the faith of Cain demonstrated by this offering.

If Cain did not offer his gifts unto God by faith, then how did he worship? The opposite of faith is by sight (2 Cor. 5:7), that is, through human intuition.

Cain worshipped according to “sight” — according to what his own senses and wisdom dictated would be an honourable gift unto the Lord.

No doubt, his produce was lovely to look upon. No doubt, he laboured over those crops until the harvest. No doubt he anticipated that all the hard work, time, and care he had spent on those offerings would be acceptable.

His expectation of acceptance is clearly demonstrated by his reaction to the Lord’s rejection of his sacrifice.

But Cain’s offering was not rejected because he did not worship in earnest.

Instead, his offering was rejected because it was offered according to his own presumption and not by faith.

Faith is not simply a feeling of confident expectation. Cain had that.

Rather, faith is the result of hearing God’s word, submitting the mind and body to its dominion, and acting in accordance to what the Lord has instructed.

There is a truism attributed to a Chinese philosopher that says, “To know and not do is to not know.”

The same principle can be applied to faith, “To believe God, and not obey him, is to not believe him.” Or as James wrote, “faith apart from works is dead” (2:26).

To whatever extent it could be said that Cain worshipped before the Lord, his activity was negated by the fact that it was not according to faith.

By way of contrast, Abel’s offering was by faith.

Why is faith attributed to Abel? Paul defines the source of faith that is well-pleasing to God in Romans 10:17.

“So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.”

Let’s reason.

  1. Abel offered his sacrifice by faith (Heb. 11:4).
  2. But faith comes by hearing the word of God (Rom 10:17)
  3. Therefore, Abel offered his sacrifice by hearing and obeying the word of God.

Cain did not offer his sacrifice by faith. Therefore, he did not worship according to the word of God. And God rejected his offering.

Cain was presumptuous. Whether or not he consciously thought that God was not serious in what he commanded is irrelevant; his actions demonstrated that he supposed that he had the right to substitute his own judgment for the Lord’s.

The way of Cain is the way of presumption. Those who, in like manner, presume to design their own system of worship are children of Cain.

Those who, just like Cain, neglect the clear teaching of the Lord in matters of salvation and invent for themselves their own system of access to the sacrifice of Christ are practicing the religion of Cain.

And God will not respect such presumptuousness.

Keep back thy servant also from presumptuous sins;
Let them not have dominion over me:
Then shall I be upright,
And I shall be clear from great transgression (Ps. 19:13)

 


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